Sharanya Nayak was once an aspiring journalist. She is now learning to become a farmer and a cultural activist. She is also a member of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), a forum of radical feminists.
She has been learning and working with indigenous communities in the undivided Koraput district of Odisha. In this era of indiscriminate industrialization, she, along with indigenous communities, has been trying to conserve the ecologically sustainable cultural practices and ecologically embedded education systems which communities have been practising since generations.
How did you start your journey from a journalist to a farmer?
I joined the Indian Express as a Sub-Editor in 1996 after completing my postgraduate studies in Sociology from the Central University of Hyderabad. In the three years of my work period, I realised that the biggest aim of my life was to stand with communities who were marginalised.
Also, I realised that I won’t be able to achieve my goal staying in Bhubaneswar. So, I quit my job and started working with Adivasi and Dalit communities as a Program Officer at ActionAid India. I worked for these communities in Malkanigiri, Rayagada, Koraput and Bolangir.
Through this funding agency, I worked on various projects like strengthening ecological resilience, gender rights, community forest rights and cultural education of the indigenous peoples.
During my working period, I unlearnt a lot and learnt afresh almost everything about life from the Adivasi communities. Their way of cultivation, ways of life, diversity of languages, philosophy of science and knowledge, deep connection and uses of the jungles and their 1000 years of learning or educational experiences.
But in the meantime, I felt that these things are disappearing day by day because of rapid industrialization and imposition of Hindutva identities on them through school systems and what we call over-governance.
So, I felt that the time had come to do something to work with the communities to conserve their history and heritage. Again, I quit my job and started learning and conserving climate-resilient ecological farming systems and engaging with children and youth to rebuild their ecologically embedded community learning systems.
How did you implement your project?
I bought 10 acres of land which I now regret immensely as I should have never owned any inch of land that historically belonged to the Adivasis and was fraudulently stolen from them by the non-Adivasis castes like mine.
So now, I am in the process of giving back this land to them through building a commune of Adivasi families on that farm which we call Rangmatiadar. We first built a house on the land and subsequently started farming there. In the course of time, we built our commune there.
The mixed-cropping method of ecological farming is what I learnt from them and which we are following at Rangmatipadar. Through mono-cropping every farmer exposes herself/himself to more risks than sustainability. But mix-cropping contains different families of crops which are not equally affected by climate fluctuations.
Each crop has its own ecosystem of friend and enemy insects. This is how you can actually make your agriculture ecologically sustainable and resilient. And, this is also something that I learnt from my mentor Dr Debal Deb.
Now, we are three families on the farm, two from Koraput and one from Malkanigiri who are collectively farming. We are cultivating 12 types of paddy, 5 types of millets, 2 types of corn and different types of vegetables on the land.
Apart from these things, we are also helping regenerate mix-cropping systems in three nearby villages, Daleiput, Machchra and Mandaguda. And, we also engage with their children in the evenings through storytelling from their parents and community elders so that they can be reinitiated into their tribal cultures, worldviews, knowledge systems and histories.
What kind of problem did you see in tribal areas?
Government rule in Adivasi areas is very violent and racist. It does not reflect the aspirations of the Adivasi people. The government is forcing mono-crop farming and timber-based plantations on Adivasi forests and hills.
It is replacing traditional seed varieties with hybrid and high-yielding varieties of paddy and millets. This has weakened their ecologically sound and sustainable agriculture systems. Besides agricultural heritage, their rich linguistic culture is being destroyed because of Odia language in schools.
Non-inclusion of their language and culture in the education syllabus has led to a silent cultural genocide. Adivasi students are facing racist and colonial abuse inside the schools, for which they are refusing to go to school.
It is very painful that an Adivasi child should have to leave their community, culture and lands to get an education, which bothers me a lot. To revive community-led learning systems and conserve their cultural heritage, we started this practice of open learning cultural sessions with children every evening.
What is your revival goal?
I have no specific goal but the only thing that drives me is the dream that the Adivasi ways of life starting from farming practices to culture, to linguistic traditions, their own survival instincts and their vibrant societies and ecologically sustainable philosophies will get societal respect, legal recognition and constitutional dignity.
I know it’s a long road ahead and a tough journey to traverse but I am trying as per my capacity to make it a possibility. Industrialisation and mining only destroy their worlds and the global environment.
This needs to be stopped. People need to understand that Adivasi societies are not illiterate, there is a better way to term it – they are the people of advanced oral cultures. They have their own language, own way of life, agricultural knowledge and collective cultures.
I have just started this from three villages. Hopefully, someday gradually more villages and peoples will also join us. So far, the Adivasi people are forcefully following the Odia language and culture. My guiding spirit behind doing all this is to enable Adivasi people to reclaim their culture and education instead of following others.
Written By Subhra Priyadarshani Kar
Image Source: Google